The National Ballet of China's journey from the terrors of cultural revolution to leading international corps is as dramatic as any of its productions. Now, with the Edinburgh festival, key dancers reveal how a new confidence is allowing China to draw inspiration from the best of the east and west
Dancers rehearse The Peony Pavilion ahead of their appearance in Edinburgh
ON A busy road in a suburb of Beijing, I'm looking for the National Ballet of China. This is an old, run-down part of China's great capital. It feels a world away from the dizzying gleam of skyscrapers packing out the business district like commuters on a train or the herds of Chinese tourists crossing the vast plain of Tiananmen Square. Here, the air is scented with the savoury-sweet smell of roast duck drifting out of traditional restaurants. Red lanterns are strung outside. Narrow networks of hutongs - narrow alleys - lead off the street like veins. Shop owners sit outside on dusty sofas, basking in the sun as it bores a hole through the fog of pollution.
Eventually finding the National Ballet (NBC), it comes as a surprise. A posh, stately building looming behind a high wall, nothing but a discreet gold plaque hints at the arabesques and plis being perfected inside. It looks more like a home for government records than the only national ballet company in the most populous country on the planet.
The NBC, which this month makes its Edinburgh International Festival debut, has been here since it was founded in 1959, ten years after the formation of the People's Republic of China. Compared to other great ballet companies, it is barely out of nappies. The Bolshoi, for example, dates back to 1776. Yet so much has happened to this world-class company in its short, remarkable life.
"It still feels like we're beginning," says Madame Zhao Ruheng, a small, softly spoken woman who has been a member of the NBC since its formation. We meet far away in the brand-new National Centre for the Performing Arts in central Beijing, an astonishing piece of architecture that looks like a giant egg floating on water. It's taken many days of negotiations to get an audience with this formidable woman, who started out as a principal dancer in the NBC, danced on pointe in fields of frozen mud during the Cultural Revolution, invited the likes of Nureyev and Fonteyn as company guests, and became artistic director in 1994. She is sweetly maternal - not the expected diva - fussing over me, buying me yoghurt and green tea, and telling her extraordinary story in a mixture of English and (translated) Mandarin with warmth and honesty. Even in slacks and a sweater, her hair short, she looks like a dancer. Though Madame Zhao officially retired in 2008 it's clear she can't stay away from her beloved company for more than five minutes. "They are more than my family," she says with a smile. "I have spent my whole life with them.
"Twenty years ago, the world didn't even know China had ballet. Now we are more visible. But we still have some catching up to do. We are following in the footsteps of the west and sometimes it feels like we are chasing the rest of the world. At the same time, we must learn from our own Chinese history, stories, and folk dance. It is a difficult time for the company. We must find our own dance vocabulary. We have so many good stories but how do we adapt them into ballets? Who will do this?"
There's a reason the home of the NBC looks so official. The building was constructed using leftover materials from the Great Hall of the People, the home of the parliament on Tiananmen Square. Both Great Hall and ballet school, then called the Experimental Ballet Company of the Beijing Dance School, were completed in 1959. And the NBC's performing home, Tianqiao Theater, which is just around the corner, was the first theatre built after the founding of the PRC. It remains the only one in Beijing devoted to ballet and opera.
The NBC was formed by Communist Party leaders who studied in Russia and Europe and were captivated by the passion and precision of ballet. Madame Zhao was taught by Russian masters including the legendary Pyotr Gusev, a dancer with the Kirov and the Bolshoi. The fates of the People's Republic and its beloved ballet company have long been entwined.
Inside the NBC, the air is heavy with stale cigarette smoke. Upstairs two classes are under way. The ballet mistress instructs the dancers at the barre in Mandarin, the odd French term popping up now and then. The Russian influence is clear even now in the dancers' every rigorous line and display of technique. They are all Chinese, very unusual in an age of truly international companies, and all have come through the ranks of Beijing Dance Academy. It's a big company (like everything in Beijing, from the parks to the food portions) and 160 people will travel to Edinburgh to perform The Peony Pavilion, a classic Chinese love story by a contemporary of Shakespeare.
Beijing Dance Academy is also where Madame Zhao learnt to dance, arriving in 1955 at the age of 11. Growing up in the provinces, the daughter of an editor of Chinese literature, her teachers singled her out. She auditioned and then, just like that, left home. "I didn't know anything about ballet," she says. "I just wanted my freedom." Even when she was 11? She laughs. "Yes. Now I think it's very brave. And at the academy it was very tough. I was a blank sheet of paper, waiting for someone to draw on me. I knew nothing."
Gusev, a notoriously tough teacher, would communicate with his young dancers through a translator. "He (the translator] was even tougher than Gusev," Madame Zhao says. "A very harsh teacher." Just four years later, though, she was a principal dancer in a company formed by, among others, Dai Ailian. Known as the mother of Chinese ballet, Madame Dai was born in Trinidad to an expatriate Chinese family, and trained in London under luminaries including Anton Dolin, as well as modern masters. Such is her influence that there is a bronze bust of her at the Royal Academy of Dance in London. And so the influences of Russia and Britain converged in the east and China's first ballet company was born.
The inaugural production was Swan Lake. In the early years Madame Zhao danced western classical ballets including Giselle and Sylvia but by the early Sixties, in the early days of Chairman Mao, the NBC was beginning to create Chinese ballets. The Red Detachment of Women was their first and most famous example of classic communist glorification (or, some might say, kitsch). It tells the story of a peasant girl who joins the communist army in an all-female division that existed in the 1930s. It was performed by the company for President Nixon when he visited China in 1972 and is still regularly danced by the NBC in (and outside) China today.
"This is me dancing The Red Detachment in the Sixties," says Madame Zhao, clicking on a blurry black and white photo on her smartphone of herself as a young, sylphlike prima ballerina. "In rehearsal the dancers looked nothing like soldiers so they decided to send us to live in military camps. We had to wear uniforms and train every day. We had to learn to shoot guns. It was very interesting."
Another Chinese communist ballet was about the lives of textile workers. To prepare, the dancers were sent to factories where they ate and slept with the workers, grafting alongside them every day. The ballet is no longer in the repertoire. "For some reason we cannot perform it," she says. "It's a great pity." Why is it no longer performed? "For some political reason," is the short, tellingly vague answer. "I believe if we could, it would be very beautiful." Perhaps one day. "You never know," she says with a light laugh. The government, she adds on a number of occasions, has always been supportive of the NBC.
The Cultural Revolution, Mao's programme of eradicating capitalist and foreign elements from China, began in 1966 and lasted a decade. Everything changed, in the country and the company too. "We were no longer able to perform western ballets," explains Madame Zhao. "The door was closed. The Russians left. There were no tights, no leotards, not even in ballet class. We had to wear Mao suits - little shorts. We were not allowed to use foreign words so all the technical ballet terms were gone. There was no more piano accompaniment. Everything had to be Chinese."
The Red Detachment of Women was one of only two works the NBC were permitted to dance. The company became a mouthpiece for the government. They danced in the Great Hall of the People for leaders and their guests and across the country in fields and on rickety makeshift stages for the nation. "That started before the Cultural Revolution," explains Madame Zhao. "It was meant to train our minds, make us strong, and give us experiences of the countryside as part of our revolutionary education. I would dance 50 days in a row in the freezing cold, standing in mud." In the end, Madame Zhao was injured. Her dancing career was over.Worse was to come. "These were not happy days," she says of the Cultural Revolution. "Everyone was facing great pressures." Her voice gets softer and she continues in Mandarin. "Some people in the company committed suicide," she says. "I saw the conductor kill himself. Tragedies happened in the company, just like they did in the country. But the one good thing was that we never stopped dancing. That is the only way I can comfort myself when I think about that period. I must remember that: we kept dancing. We carried on."
In the Eighties, the door to the west opened again, and the NBC entered its next phase. Choreographers and companies were welcomed back. The repertoire grew. On the flip side, many dancers left. "In 1986 we did our first big tour to America," says Madame Zhao. "Wow. China was still very poor then and it was incredible to see. It was so different. We had never even seen Coca-Cola before." Now, the dancers don't bat an eyelid when they go overseas. "It's not like a fancy trip any more," she notes. "What we see there, you can buy here in Beijing. The change was very quick." The world order is shifting again, and the NBC is moving with it.
At Tianqiao Theater, they perform The Peony Pavilion. It's a lavish full-scale ballet: choreography by 42-year-old Beijing hipster Fei Bo, costumes by Japanese Oscar-winner Emi Wada. Like the NBC's hugely successful adaptation of Raise The Red Lantern, it attempts the fusion between east and west that the company is so keen to master. It's a beautiful, though sometimes befuddling, ballet told through a series of dream sequences distilled into two hours from a 20-hour play, traditionally performed over three days. Even the Beijingers don't seem entirely sold on the merging of kun opera with western classical music, classical ballet with traditional Chinese folk dance. Here, and in the rest of China it's said, they still prefer Swan Lake or The Red Detachment of Women.
"It's very hard to get Chinese people to come to the ballet," artistic director Feng Ying admits. She joined the NBC as a dancer in the Eighties and took over as director when Madame Zhao retired. "It is slowly changing as China changes. The middle classes are starting to show up." The NBC, she adds, has recently begun giving lectures in schools and universities on ballet appreciation. Attitudes are changing, though not with the same accelerated speed as everything else in China.
The company conductor, Zhang Yi, puts it more starkly. "As China gets more and more money, we will be heard more." A smart middle-aged man in a pinstripe suit, he adds that a sensual work such as The Peony Pavilion, regarded in China as pretty racy, would not have been permitted two decades ago. "China is opening the door more and more widely," he says. "This is a good time for Chinese artists. The Peony Pavilion is more than an adaptation of a famous Chinese love story. It's a window through which you can see China today." He leans forward and starts throwing questions. Do I know about Chinese culture? Does it interest me? Do I like it?
At the NBC headquarters, are some of the new generation benefiting from changes in China and the new world order. Fei Bo, the choreographer, is a lean and lanky dancer with a mischievous expression. The son of Chinese opera singers, he was offered the job of creating his first full-length ballet while he was in London rehearsing with acclaimed choreographer Akram Khan. He came straight home. "Madame Zhao called and asked if I thought I could do it," he recalls. "I screamed, and then said I'll try." Did he find taking on a titan of classic Chinese culture tough? "I have some regrets," he admits. "I found expressing some of the great passion and longing in movement difficult, but I'm still young. This is the biggest thing I've ever done."
Some might say it is too much for an inexperienced choreographer. Both Madame Feng and Madame Zhao express their concern about the enormous pressure Fei Bo faced. Then again, that's precisely the point. If China is to create its own dance vocabulary - a style that nods to its complex history and its influences from east and west, China and Russia, classical and contemporary - it has to have faith in its own artists.
At the National Centre For The Performing Arts, an opera singer has just launched into a series of Italian arias and a crowd of curious Chinese people is starting to gather around the small stage. Madame Zhao raises her soft voice over the din. "We need to remain open to everything while China develops," she says. "Life is changing so rapidly but ballet is slow. We need more time." Did she never consider leaving China? When the door opened, what made her stay? "I wanted to be in Beijing," she replies with a smile. "That's why so many people are coming back. Outside, it's not like it is here in our country."
• The Peony Pavilion, Festival Theatre, 13-15 August. (sold out, returns only).
This article was originally published in The Scotsman Magazine on August 6.